I finished a thing. Further details here.
And here’s a picture of the cover, which features part of Emmanuel Garibay’s wonderful painting Selda (Prison Cell), 2020.
In his wonderful book, Rabbit is Rich, John Updike offers the following observation: ‘Laugh at ministers all you want, they have the words we need to hear, the ones the dead have spoken’. Here Updike is suggesting that religious language, the Bible’s language, or what he calls ‘the words … the dead have spoken’ are the very bread and butter of a minister’s vocabulary, words which determine not only the content of a minister’s speech but also the conduct associated with a minister’s speech. Indeed, ministers are permitted to speak only that which has been given. All other words are only waffle, a foul and unholy wind. No wonder that Bonhoeffer said that ‘teaching about Christ begins in silence’. For the words which the dead have spoken are, as Walter Brueggemann reminds us in his book on the psalms, ‘words that linger with power and authority after their speakers have gone’. Brueggemann understands the psalmists and prophets to be the great poets of our tradition, who speak to God out of the fullness of the human condition. He considers the entire psalter as a collection of three kinds of psalms: there are psalms of orientation, psalms of disorientation, and psalms of new orientation. ‘Poets exist so that the dead may vote’, said Elie Wiesel, and they vote in the Psalms. ‘They vote for faith’, says Brueggemann. ‘But in voting for faith they vote for candor, for pain, for passion – and finally for joy. Their persistent voting gives us a word that turns out to be the word of life’. Brueggemann is concerned about the kind of exclusively happy-clappy churchianity that exists, saying that ‘the problem with a hymnody that focuses on equilibrium, coherence, and symmetry (as in the psalms of orientation) is that it may deceive and cover over. Life is not like that. Life is so savagely marked by incoherence, a loss of balance, and unrelieved asymmetry’. True poets, painters, musicians etc. take the fullness of creaturely life seriously and, insofar as they do this, open up space in which the Holy Dove of God has room to flutter her wings.
Revelation, healing, hope, forgiveness, worship, prayer, the transformation and redemption of human community – what are these if not fundamentally engaged with the matter of the human imagination. The psalmists new this. The prophets new this. And Brueggemann calls upon preachers today to embrace a like posture with the utmost seriousness. He begins his book The Prophetic Imagination with the following words:
The contemporary American church is so largely enculturated to the American ethos of consumerism that it has little power to believe or to act. This enculturation is in some way true across the spectrum of church life, both liberal and conservative. It may not be a new situation, but it is one that seems especially urgent and pressing at the present time. That enculturation is true not only of the institution of the church but also of us as persons. Our consciousness has been claimed by false fields of perception and idolatrous systems of language and rhetoric.
The internal cause of such enculturation is our loss of identity through the abandonment of the faith tradition. Our consumer culture is organized against history. There is a depreciation of memory and a ridicule of hope, which means everything must be held in the now, either an urgent now or an eternal now. Either way, a community rooted in energizing memories and summoned by radical hopes is a curiosity and a threat in such a culture. When we suffer from amnesia every form of serious authority for faith is in question, and we live unauthorized lives of faith and practice unauthorized ministries.
The church will not have power to act or believe until it recovers its tradition of faith and permits that tradition to be the primal way out of enculturation. This is not a cry for traditionalism but rather a judgment that the church has no business more pressing than the reappropriation of its memory in its full power and authenticity. And that is true among liberals who are too chic to remember and conservatives who have overlaid the faith memory with all kinds of hedges that smack of scientism and Enlightenment.
… The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us … So, my programmatic urging is that every act of a minister who would be prophetic is part of a way of evoking, forming, and reforming an alternative community. And this applies to every facet and every practice of ministry. It is a measure of our enculturation that the various acts of ministry (for example, counseling, administration, even liturgy) have taken on lives and functions of their own rather than being seen as elements of the one prophetic ministry of formation and reformation of alternative community … [I]f the church is to be faithful it must be formed and ordered from the inside of its experience and confession and not by borrowing from sources external to its own life.
So in calling upon preachers to take seriously the role of the imagination, Brueggemann is not asking us to discard our own tradition and to take on something new. Rather, he is inviting us to do what God’s prophets and apostles have always done – to hear and to see and to taste and to touch and to speak the word of God, and to do so with all the powers of new imaginings that God has given to us, even in our own tradition, so that we might wrestle with the Word of God, with the old old story, as if for the first time, and have our lives formed by it.
In another book, Finally Comes the Poet, Brueggemann turns his attention specifically to preachers:
The gospel is too readily heard and taken for granted, as though it contained no unsettling news and no unwelcome threat. What began as news in the gospel is easily assumed, slotted, and conveniently dismissed. We depart having heard, but without noticing the urge to transformation that is not readily compatible with our comfortable believing that asks little and receives less.
The gospel is thus a truth widely held, but a truth greatly reduced. It is a truth that has been flattened, trivialized, and rendered inane. Partly, the gospel is simply an old habit among us, neither valued nor questioned. But more than that, our technical way of thinking reduces mystery to problem, transforms assurance into certitude, revises quality into quantity, and so takes the categories of biblical faith and represents them in manageable shapes.
When truth is mediated in such positivistic, ideological, and therefore partisan ways, humaneness wavers, the prospect for humanness, is at risk, and unchecked brutality makes its appearance. We shall not be the community we hope to be if our primary communications are in modes of utilitarian technology and managed, conformed values. The issues facing the church and its preachers may be put this way: Is there another way to speak? Is there another voice to be voiced? Is there an alternative universe of discourse to be practiced that will struggle with the truth in ways unreduced? In the sermon – and in the life of the church, more generally, I propose – we are to practice another way of communication that makes another shaping of life possible; unembarrassed about another rationality, not anxious about accommodating the reason of this age.
The task and possibility of preaching is to open out the good news of the gospel with alternative modes of speech – speech that is dramatic, artistic, capable of inviting persons to join in another conversation, free of the reason of technique, unencumbered by ontologies that grow abstract, unembarrassed about concreteness. Such speech, when heard in freedom, assaults imagination and pushes out the presumed world in which most of us are trapped. Reduced speech leads to reduced lives. Sunday morning is the practice of a counter life through counter speech. The church on Sunday morning, or whenever it engages in its odd speech, may be the last place left in our society for imaginative speech that permits people to enter into new worlds of faith and to participate in joyous, obedient life.
To address the issue of a truth greatly reduced requires us to be poets that speak against a prose world. The terms of that phrase are readily misunderstood. By prose I refer to a world that is organized in settled formulae, so that even pastoral prayers and love letters sound like memos. By poetry, I do not mean rhyme, rhythm, or meter, but language that moves like Bob Gibson’s fast ball, that jumps at the right moment, that breaks open old worlds with surprise, abrasion, and pace. Poetic speech is the only proclamation worth doing in a situation of reductionism, the only proclamation, I submit, that is worthy of the name preaching. Such preaching is not moral instruction or problem solving or doctrinal clarification. It is not good advice, nor is it romantic caressing, nor is it a soothing good humor.
It is, rather, the ready, steady, surprising proposal that the real world in which God invites us to live is not the one made available by the rulers of this age. The preacher has an awesome opportunity to offer an evangelical world: an existence shaped by the news of the gospel. This offer requires special care for words, because the baptized community awaits speech in order to be a faithful people. What a way to think about a poetic occasion that moves powerfully to expose the prose reductions around us as false! … Because we live so close to the biblical text, we often fail to note its generative power to summon and evoke new life. Broadly construed, the language of the biblical text is prophetic: it anticipates and summons realities that live beyond the conventions of our day-to-day, take-for-granted world. The Bible is our firm guarantee that in a world of technological naivete and ideological reductionism, prophetic construals of another world are still possible, still worth doing, still longingly received by those who live at the edge of despair, resignation, and conformity. Our preferred language is to call such speech prophetic, but we might also term it poetic. Those whom the ancient Israelites called prophets, the equally ancient Greeks called poets. The poet/prophet is a voice that shatters settled reality and evokes new possibility in the listening assembly. Preaching continues that dangerous, indispensable habit of speech. The poetic speech of text and of sermon is a prophetic construal of a world beyond the one taken for granted … This poetic/prophetic utterance runs great risk. It runs the risk of being heard as fantasy and falsehood … The more tightly we hold to settled reality, the more likely the alternative construal of the poet will be dismissed as ‘mere fiction’. The poet/prophet, however, does not flinch from ‘fiction’, for the alternative envisioned in such speech is a proposal that destabilizes all our settled ‘facts’, and opens the way for transformation and the gift of newness.
And so Brueggemann encourages us to think of preaching as ‘a poetic construal of an alternative world’, the purpose of which is to ‘cherish the truth, to open the truth from its pervasive reductionism in our society, to break the fearful rationality that keeps the news from being new … After the engineers, inventors, and scientists, after all such through knowledge, “finally comes the poet”. The poet does not come to have a say until the human community has engaged in its best management. Then perchance comes the Power of poetry – shattering, evocative speech that breaks fixed conclusions and presses us always toward new, dangerous, imaginative possibilities … This speech, entrusted to and practiced by the church, is an act of relentless hope; an argument against the ideological closing of life we unwittingly embrace’.
It is precisely this posture towards and way of thinking about the poetic and fantastic (i.e., from fantasy, fiction, etc.) nature of reality and the shape of divine revelation that is just so imperative, not only for preaching but also for prayer, for pastoral encounters, for crafting liturgy, for choreographing church leadership structures and meetings, etc. Surely one of the main roles for leaders of faith communities is to help transform and foster our imaginations with the rich and fundamental traditions and texts that have formed us as a people, and to help God’s people to hear those afresh, as if for the first time. And for leaders of Christian faith communities, this means fostering an imagination baptised in the promises and stories of the Bible, seeing and hearing and tasting them as God’s ever-new speech.
And what art encourages is the opening up of hermeneutical space wherein our questions are taken seriously, where we can feel safer to explore them with God and with God’s people. Such a posture is something of a confession too; a confession that (i) there is truth that desires to be known; and (ii) we do not and cannot monopolise and control the truth of things.
Brueggemann reminds us that the meeting of the community of faith is an odd kind of speech meeting which ‘has the potential of evoking a new humanity’. And he suggests that in order for the new reality to be birthed, four partners need to be present:
1. The first partner in the meeting is the text. The congregation gathers with a vague memory of the text – a memory that has the text mostly reduced, trivialized, and domesticated.
2. The second partner in the meeting is the baptized. The community, he suggests in Finally Comes The Poet, ‘gathers to be shaped by a text that addresses us, an articulation of reality that lies outside of us that we cannot conjure and need not defend. The ones gather have been baptized. They may understand in an inchoate [i.e., tentative, embryonic, etc] way, but they have in fact made some vague decision about the cruciality of this text. They do not have a clear articulation of the text’s authority. Or they have a clear articulation that has become so scholastic as to be without use. Nonetheless, they are prepared to accept, in a general way, that this text is their text, the voice of life addressed to them’. He continues:
The baptized then, have been struggling with this text. The ones gathered are those who have either been other texts and have found them wanting, or have greatly resisted other texts and need this text reiterated Once again. Either way, out of compromise or resistance, the community gathers not for entertainment or private opinion, even for problem solving, but for the text made available yet again. They gather to hear the text that is shamelessly theological, candidly kerygmatic, and naively eschatological. The community waits for the text that may be a tent for the spirit. It waits with the hopeful yearning that the ‘house of authority’ is still intact. But if the text is to claim authority it will require neither the close reasoning of a canon lawyer, nor the precision of a technician, but it will require an artist to render the text in quite fresh ways, so that the text breaks life open among the baptized as it never has before.
3. Third, Brueggemann avers, there is ‘this specific occasion for speech’. Here he notes that ‘when the music stops and the rheostat is turned down, then there is this precious, awesome moment of speech’:
It is not time for cleverness or novelty. It is not time for advice or scolding or urging, because the text is not any problem-solving answer or a flat, ideological agent that can bring resolve. This moment of speech is a poetic rendering in a community that has come all too often to expect nothing but prose. It is a prose world for all those who must meet payrolls and grade papers and pump gas and fly planes. When the text, too, has been reduced to prose, life becomes so prosaic that there is a dread dullness that besets the human spirit. We become mindless conformists or angry protesters, and there is no health in us. We become so beaten by prose that only poetic articulation has a chance to let us live.
Into this situation, in this moment, the preacher must speak. She does not get to speak a new text. She must speak an old text – the one everybody knows. From the very first syllable, the ending is already known. But it is a script to be played afresh, so that in this moment of drama the players render the play as a surprise to permit a fresh hearing, a second opinion. It is an artistic in which the words are concrete but open, close our life but moving out to new angles of reality. At the end, there is a breathless waiting: stunned, not sure we have reached the end. Then there is a powerful sense that a world has been rendered in which I may live, a world that is truly home but from which I have been alienated. The speaker must truly be a poet. After the scientist and the engineer, ‘finally comes the poet’ (which Israel calls prophet) – to evoke a different world, a new song, a fresh move, a new identity, a resolve about ethics, a being at home.
4. Brueggemann’s fourth and final cadence concerns the fact that in the voice that takes the old script and renders it to evoke a world we had not yet witnessed (cf. Isa 43.19), a ‘better world [is] given as fresh revelation’. ‘Something’, he insists, ‘is revealed’, and ‘we know not how’. He continues:
A probe behind the closed parameters of religion too-long settled and politics too easily comfortable. It is not only truth disclosed, but it is life disclosed. Life unclosed, Life made open, certitudes broken so that we can redecide, images moving, imagination assaulting ideology. We find new configurations of life yet unformed, unthought, but now available. The old slogans sound unconvincing. I thought I had come for certitude, but the poetic speech does not give certitude. As I am addressed by the gospel, I hear anew that possibility overwhelms necessity in my life. The only available absolute given me is a ‘fiction’ to which I must trust myself – a gracious ‘fiction’ on which I stake my life, authored by God who also authors the text and the speech.
The congregation departs. Same old quarrels in the car on the way home. Same old tensions at dinner. Same tired beginning on Monday. Now, however, there is disclosed a new word, a new hope, a new verb, a new conversation, a new risk, a new possibility. It is not a new truth, but rather one long known that had been greatly reduced. That long-known truth is now greatly enhanced in riches, texture, availability, demand. My life is mapped in mystery and I accept that new life; but it is also mapped in vulnerability and it frightens me. The mystery gives regal authority and freedom in the face of an IRS audit. The vulnerability permits me to come out from behind my desk, my stethoscope, my uniform, my competence, my credentials, my fears – to meet life a little more boldly. Yet again, as the word is spoken one more time, we move through the wearisome death-ridden days of our life and come back once again to Easter to be stunned into disbelief, and then beyond disbelief, to be stunned to life, now filled with fear and trembling.
The meeting involves this old text, the spent congregation believing but impoverished, the artist of new possibility, the disclosure. The Prince of Darkness tries frantically to keep the world closed so that we can be administered. The Prince has such powerful allies in this age. Against such enormous odds, however, there is the working of this feeble, inscrutable, unshackled moment of sermon. Sometimes the Prince will win the day and there is no new thing uttered or heard. Sometimes, however, the sermon will have its say and the truth looms large – larger than the text or the voice or the folk had any reason to expect. When that happens, the world is set loose toward healing. The sermon for such a time shames the Prince and we become yet again more nearly human. The Author of the text laughs in delight, the way that Author has laughed only at creation and at Easter, but laughs again when the sermon carries the day against the prose of the Dark Prince who wants no new poetry in the region he thinks he governs. Where the poetry is sounded, the Prince knows a little of the territory has been lost to its true Ruler. The newly claimed territory becomes a new home of freedom, justice, peace, and abiding joy. This happens when the poet comes, when the poet speaks, when the preacher comes as poet.
It was nearly four years ago now when I had the joy of hearing NT Wright lecture in St Andrews. It was one of the James Gregory Public Lectures, and his topic was ‘Can a Scientist Believe in the Resurrection?’. Since then, of course, Tom Wright has been appointed to a Chair in New Testament and Early Christianity at that same university, and where just last week he gave his Inaugural Lecture titled ‘Imagining the Kingdom: Mission and Theology in Early Christianity’. Here’s a snippet:
The four gospels … are thus appropriately named ‘gospel’, in line both with Isaiah 40 and 52 and with the contemporary pagan usage. They themselves, in telling the story of how God became king in and through Jesus, invite their readers to the imaginative leap of saying, ‘Suppose this is how God has done it? Suppose the world’s way of empire is all wrong? Suppose there’s a different way, and suppose that Jesus, in his life, death and resurrection, has brought it about?’ And the gospels themselves, of course, contain stories at a second level, stories purportedly told by Jesus himself, which were themselves, in their day, designed to break open the worldview of their hearers and to initiate a massive imaginative leap to which Jesus gave the name ‘faith’. The gospels invite their readers, in other words, to a multiple exercise, both of imagining what it might have been like to make that leap in the first century (both for Jesus’ hearers and then, at a second stage, for their own readers) and, as a further stage again, of imagining what it might be like to do so today. For too long gospel study has been dominated by the attempt to make the gospels reflect, simply, the faith-world of the early church. Why, after all, the radical critics used to say, would the early Christians have been particularly interested in miscellaneous stories of what Jesus actually said or did, when all that really mattered was his saving death, making the gospels simply ‘passion narratives with extended introductions’? The conservative response has been that early converts would naturally want to know more about this Jesus in whom they had come to place their faith. But this stand-off, on both sides, has usually failed to reflect the larger question: that the gospels tell the story of Jesus not out of mere historical anecdotage or faith-projection, but because this is how Jesus launched the kingdom of God, which he then accomplished in his death and resurrection. Even to hold this possibility in one’s head requires, in today’s western church, whether radical or conservative, no less than in the non-Christian world, a huge effort of the imagination.
This imagination, like all good right-brain activity, must then be firmly and thoroughly worked through the left brain, disciplined by the rigorous historical and textual analysis for which the discipline of biblical studies has rightly become famous. But, by itself, the left brain will produce, and has often produced, a discipline full of facts but without meaning, high on analysis and low on reconstruction, good at categories and weak on the kingdom.
You can read the whole lecture here.
In his recent lecture on ‘T.F. Torrance on Scripture’ (presented in Montreal, 6 November 2009, at the Annual Meeting of the T.F. Torrance Theological Fellowship), Professor John Webster argued that Torrance’s most sustained writing on Scripture lay not in extended cursive exegesis but rather in ‘epistemological and hermeneutical questions – in giving a theological account of the nature of the biblical writings and of the several divine and human acts which compose the economy of revelation’ (p. 1). Such an account requires the theologian to both develop an anatomy of modern reason, in order to expose a ‘damaging breach in the ontological bearing of our minds upon reality’ (Reality & Evangelical Theology, 10), and to make an attempt at ‘repairing the ontological relation of the mind to reality, so that a structural kinship arises between human knowing and what is known’ (ibid., 10). Webster contends that Torrance’s writings on these matters constitute ‘one of the most promising bodies of material on a Christian theology of the Bible and its interpretation from a Protestant divine of the last five or six decades – rivalled but not surpassed’, Webster suggests, ‘by Berkouwer’s magisterial study Holy Scripture’ (p. 1).
Webster devotes the bulk of his paper to three related areas of Torrance’s thought on Scripture: namely, that (i) Scripture must be ordered from a trinitarian theology of revelation; (ii) that the biblical writings are complex textual acts of reference to the Word of God; and (iii) that the Bible directs its readers to ‘a hermeneutics of repentance and faith’ (p. 4).
On this first point, Webster notes that ‘a theological account of the nature of Scripture and its interpretation takes its rise … not in observations of the immanent religious and literary processes, as if the texts could be understood as self-articulations on the part of believing communities, but in the doctrine of the self-revealing triune God. Torrance is unhesitatingly and unrelentingly a positive dogmatician at this point, in a couple of senses. First, and most generally, he takes revelation as a given condition for the exercise of theological intelligence, not as a matter about which intelligence is competent to entertain possibilities or deliver a judgment … Second, more specifically, Torrance’s positivity concerns the way in which knowledge of God, including knowledge of God through Holy Scripture – arises from the specific modes in which God deals with rational creatures’ (pp. 4–5). In support of this claim, Webster cites from (among other sources) Torrance’s Divine Meaning:
‘The source of all our knowledge of God is his revelation of himself. We do not know God against his will, or behind his back, as it were, but in accordance with the way in which he as elected to disclose himself and communicate his truth in the historical theological context of the worshipping people of God, the Church of the Old and New Covenants. That is the immediate empirical fact with which the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New testaments are bound up’ (Divine Meaning, 5).
Such a move, Webster recalls, enables Torrance to develop an account of revelation in which the relation of divine communication to the biblical texts is not fundamentally problematic, but rather is one in which ‘creaturely media can fittingly perform a service in relation to the intelligible speech of God’ (p. 6). He continues:
‘It was this, perhaps more than any other factor, which led to his estrangement from mainstream British theological culture, preoccupied as it was both in biblical and doctrinal work with the supposedly self -ontained realities of Christian texts, beliefs and morals, struggling to move beyond historical immanence, and weakened by a largely inoperative theology of the incarnation. Torrance was able to overcome the inhibitions of his contemporaries by letting a theology of the divine economy instruct him in the way in which God acts in the temporal and intelligible domain of the creature’. (p. 6)
Webster proceeds to note that the ultimate ground of Torrance’s claim that only God speaks of God is the Word’s assumption of flesh, an event which ‘carries with it the election and sanctification of creaturely form’ (p. 7). He concludes the section by underscoring Torrance’s refusal to be ‘trapped either by the kind of revelatory supernaturalism in which the Bible is unproblematically identical with the divine Word, and so effectively replaces the hypostatic union, or the kind of naturalism in which the Bible mediates nothing because it has been secularised as without residue a product or bearer of immanent religious culture’ (p. 8).
In the next section, Webster recalls how for Torrance the relation between the divine Word and the human words of Scripture is a positive one: ‘there is no crisis about the possibility of human text acts serving in God’s personal activity of self-presentation to intelligent creatures’ (p. 9). At this point the doctrine of Scripture exhibits similar formal features as does that of the hypostatic union. And Webster goes on to identify three ways in which Torrance amplifies this basic proposal: (1) Scripture as an accommodated divine Word (a theme that betrays Torrance’s indebtment to Calvin); (2) Scripture as sacrament; (3) Scripture’s expressive or referential relation to the divine Word. On the first, divine accommodation, Webster writes:
‘A theology of accommodation is a way of overcoming the potential agnosticism or scepticism which can lurk within strong teaching about the ineffable majesty of God. Doctrines of divine transcendence can paralyse theological speech, severing the connection between theologia in se and theologia nostra, and cause theology either to retreat into silence or to resign itself to the referential incapacity of secular human words. If, however, we think of divine revelation actively accommodating itself to creaturely forms, we make use of language about divine action, but without the assumption that divine action can only be efficacious an trustworthy if it is direct and immediate, uncontaminated by any created element. We retain, that is, a measure of trust that divine communicative activity is uninhibited by creaturely media, which it can take into its service and shape into fitting (though never wholly adequate) instruments. In terms of the doctrine of Holy Scripture, this means that, although we do not receive the Word of God directly but only ‘in the limitation and imperfection, the ambiguities and contradictions of our fallen ways of thought and speech’ (Divine Meaning, 8), nevertheless we do have the divine Word. Creaturely limitation, imperfection, ambiguity and contradiction do not constitute an unsurpassable barrier to the Word as it makes itself present to created intelligence … Divine appropriation, moreover, brings with it the transformation of creaturely speech, its transposition into a new field of operation and its being accorded a new set of semantic functions’ (pp. 11, 13).
In the next section, Webster turns to the question of biblical interpretation, where he allows the agenda to be set by Torrance’s own questions; namely, What is biblical interpretation’s most characteristic posture before the divine Word? What is the general tenor of its activity? From whence does it come, and to what end does it move? How does it come to learn to dispose itself fittingly in the domain of the divine Word? Webster recalls that for Torrance, the governing rule for the interpretation of Scripture is that the Scriptures ‘are to be interpreted in terms of the intrinsic intelligibility given them by divine revelation, and within the field of God’s objective self-communication in Jesus Christ’ (The Christian Doctrine of God, 43). He later cites from Torrance’s brilliant Reality & Evangelical Theology, noting that for Torrance theological interpretation is, therefore, a matter of ‘subjecting the language used to the realities it signifies and attend[ing] to the bearing of its coherent patterns upon the self-revelation of God which it manifestly intends’ (Reality & Evangelical Theology, 117). Webster concludes that ‘because of this, hermeneutics is not a poetic activity. The interpreter is not a co-creator of meaning by the work which he or she undertakes with the text. And so, in biblical hermeneutics the interpreter’s task is more than anything to receive with the right kind of pliability the gift of meaning which the divine Word extends through the text’s service. It is this all-important alertness to the text’s relation to the reality which it signifies which constitutes the scientific character of biblical hermeneutics … If the all-important property of the Bible is the semantic relation between divine Word and created text, the all-important hermeneutical activity is that of probing behind or beneath literary phenomena in order to have dealings with that which the phenomena indicate. The “depth – surface” language, that is, goes hand in hand with what has already been said of Scripture as sign or sacrament: the movement of which the Bible is part does not terminate in itself, and the interpreter must not be arrested by the merely phenomenal, but instead press through the text to the Word of which it is the ambassador’ (p. 16, 17).
A gravely important point. Webster does not, unfortunately, unpack the claim about poetic activity, nor does he proceed to relate this directly to preaching, and to what sense (if any) preaching – and, indeed, the Church’s entire liturgical witness – entails poetic action, that divine speech in Scripture calls not only for ‘crucifixion and repentance’ (Divine Meaning, 8) but also for a rigorous affirmation of the imagination, not as, to be sure, a ‘co-creator of meaning’ or where readers and hearers might be said to ‘make’ meaning, but as part of the Word’s faithful and sanctifying unveiling. Is imagination somehow not included in the claim, made earlier, that the Word’s assumption of flesh ‘carries with it the election and sanctification of creaturely form’ (p. 7)? I think here of Brueggemann’s Finally Comes The Poet, of Nicholas Lash’s Holiness, Speech and Silence (see, for example, pp. 3–4), and, indeed, of Torrance’s own The Mediation of Christ. Unless I have misunderstood Webster here, surely this is a matter of both/and. So Trevor Hart:
‘We must insist, to be sure, that God’s self-revealing initiative (in Scripture, in his own self-imaging in his Son, and in his personal indwelling of the church in his Spirit) be taken absolutely seriously and accounted for adequately in Christian discipleship and theological construction. Yet we must also acknowledge the vital roles played by imagination in laying hold of the reality of this same God and in enabling our response to God’s engagement with us. For faith, as evangelicals above all know very well, is a relationship with God that transforms and transfigures. It is a relationship in which the Father’s approach in Word and Spirit calls forth from us ever and again imaginative responses as we seek to interpret, to “make sense” of, and to correspond appropriately with what we hear God saying to us. It is not a matter of having a divine image impressed on us like tablets of wax but of having our imagination taken captive and being drawn into a divine drama, playing out the role that the Father grants us in the power of the Spirit, whom he pours out on the entire group of players’. – Trevor A. Hart, ‘Imagining Evangelical Theology’, in Evangelical Futures: A Conversation on Theological Method (ed. J. G. Stackhouse, Jr.; Grand Rapids/Leicester/Vancouver: Baker Books/Inter-Varsity Press/Regent College Publishing, 2000), 197–8.
Professor Hart, who has, I think, engaged with these questions more deeply and more satisfactorily than most in recent centuries, has argued elsewhere that imagination remains a key category for any discourse about themes eschatological, that in order to make sense of the kind of hopeful living towards God’s future that Scripture bears witness to demands that we take the imagination seriously. ‘One of the key functions of imagination is the presentation of the otherwise absent. In other words, we have the capacity through imagination to call to mind objects, persons or states of affairs which are other than those which appear to confront us in what, for want of a better designation, we might call our “present actuality” (i.e. that which we are currently experiencing). I do not say “reality” precisely because the real itself may well prove to be other than what appears to be actual’. He continues: ‘Another key role of imagination in human life is as the source of the capacity to interpret, to locate things within wider patterns or networks of relationships which are not given, but which we appeal to tacitly in making sense of things. We see things as particular sorts of things, and this is, in substantial part, an imaginative activity. And, since more than one way of seeing or taking things is often possible, what appears to be the case may actually change with an imaginative shift of perspective, rendering a quite distinct picture of the real’. – Trevor Hart, ‘Imagination for the Kingdom of God? Hope, Promise, and the Transformative Power of an Imagined Future’ in God Will Be All In All: The Eschatology of Jürgen Moltmann (ed. Richard Bauckham; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001), 54. In other words, the present, Hart insists, does not contain its full meaning within itself, but only in its relation to what is yet to come.
It is precisely imagination, the capacity which is able to take the known and to modify it in striking and unexpected ways, which offers us the opportunity to think beyond the limits of the given, to explore states of affairs which, while they are radical and surprising modifications of the known, are so striking and surprising as to transcend the latent possibilities and potentialities of the known. If, therefore, the promise of God is the source of hope, it may be that we must pursue the suggestion that it is the imagination of men and women to which that promise appeals, which it seizes and expands, and which is the primary locus of God’s sanctifying activity in human life. (Hart, ‘Imagination’, 76)
Returning back to Torrance (and to Webster), it seems to me that the graced value of the imagination is not necessarily excluded from Torrance’s own rigorous scientific method, though, as Tony Clark has argued in a 2006 paper given at St Mary’s College, St Andrews, Torrance does have a tendency to see the scientific nature of theology as an exclusive paradigm for theological knowledge and in this the Scottish Presbyterian ‘discounts or marginalises other approaches to theology which ought properly to complement the “scientific model”’. [BTW: I heartily commend the published version of Clark’s PhD thesis, Divine Revelation and Human Practice: Responsive and Imaginative Participation]. If Webster’s point that hermeneutics is not a poetic activity is simply to underscore the basic unilateral givenness of the text then I can have no problem with his statement, but if by this claim he means to suggest that ‘the scientific character of biblical hermeneutic’ takes place apart from human imagination, then I would want to suggest otherwise.
To be sure, Webster touches on something of this in the final section of his lecture wherein he alludes to ‘a theology of the Word’s majestic freedom and condescension in appropriating and adapting created speech to revelation’ (p. 24), but he leaves this point undeveloped, electing instead to focus on Torrance’s trumpeting of ‘a genealogy of exegetical and interpretative reason … not only to give a pathology of hermeneutical defect but also to retrieve a set of useable dogmatic, metaphysical and spiritual principles by which to direct the interpretative exercise’ (p. 25).
My relatively-small reservation aside, Professor Webster’s paper is a superb introduction to Torrance on Scripture, and betrays his own longlasting engagement with questions of Scripture and hermeneutics, most obviously in Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch but also in other places. It certainly rekindled my appetite for Webster’s own forthcoming commentary on Ephesians (as part of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible series). Many thanks to the TF Torrance Theological Fellowship for making Professor Webster’s paper widely available.
‘It is a weakness of printed literature that this reciprocity between writer and reader is difficult to maintain. The printing-press separates the writer from his audience and fosters cross-purposes between them. The organization of the literary profession and the “technique” of good writing, as that is understood among ourselves, consist to a great extent of methods for mitigating this evil; but the evil is only mitigated and not removed. It is intensified by every new mechanization of art. The reason why gramophone music is so unsatisfactory to any one accustomed to real music is not because the mechanical reproduction is bad – that would be easily compensated by the hearer’s imagination – but because the performers and the audience are out of touch. The audience is not collaborating, it is only overhearing. The same thing happens in the cinema, where collaboration as between author and producer is intense, but as between this unit and the audience non-existent. Performances on the wireless have the same defect. The consequence is that the gramophone, the cinema, and the wireless are perfectly serviceable as vehicles of amusement or of propaganda, for here the audience’s function is merely receptive and not concreative; but as vehicles of art they are subject to all the defects of the printing-press in an aggravated form. “Why”, one hears it asked, “should not the modern popular entertainment of the theatre, produce a new form of great art?” The answer is simple. In the Renaissance theatre collaboration between author and actors on the one hand, and audience on the other, was a lively reality. In the cinema it is impossible’. – Robin George Collingwood, The Principles of Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1958), 323.
Tragically, the same critique may be laid against many churches. In fact, Collingwood’s words reminded me of Ben’s reflections on ‘a famous Sydney megachurch’ posted earlier this year.
The Centre for Public Christianity has made available four short video conversations filmed with Trevor Hart when Trevor was in Sydney last year to deliver the 22nd Annual New College Lectures at the University of New South Wales. (These talks are available for MP3 download here). Trevor is always worth listening too, and the videos are available here:
‘“It is not reason that is against us, but imagination.” … The ways in which we “see” the world, its story and its destiny; the ways in which we “see” what human beings are, and what they’re for, and how they are related to each other and the world around them; these things are shaped and structured by the stories that we tell, the cities we inhabit, the buildings in which we live, and work, and play; by how we handle – through drama, art and song – the things that give us pain and bring us joy. What does the world look like? What do we look like? What does God look like? It is not easy to think Christian thoughts in a culture whose imagination, whose ways of “seeing” the world and everything there is to see, are increasingly unschooled by Christianity and, to a considerable and deepening extent, quite hostile to it.
In such a situation, continuing to hold the Gospel’s truth makes much more serious and dangerous demands than mere lip-service paid to undigested information. Unless we make that truth our own through thought, and pain, and argument – through prayer and study and an unflinching quest for understanding – it will be chipped away, reshaped, eroded, by the power of an imagining fed by other springs, tuned to quite different stories. And this unceasing, strenuous, vulnerable attempt to make some Christian sense of things, nor just in what we say, but through the ways in which we “see” the world, is what is known as doing theology’. – Nicholas Lash, Holiness, Speech and Silence: Reflections on the Question of God (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004), 3–4.